Recently in Performances
I’m at the Wigmore Hall!” American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton’s exuberant excitement at finding herself performing in the world’s premier lieder venue was delightful and infectious. With accompanist James Baillieu, Barton presented what she termed a “love-fest” of some of the duo’s favourite art songs. The programme - Turina, Brahms, Dvořák, Ives, Sibelius - was also surely designed to show-case Barton’s sumptuous and balmy tone, stamina, range and sheer charisma; that is, the qualities which won her the First and Song Prizes at the 2013 BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“If I lacked ears, it would be bad, but still more bearable; but lacking a nose, a man is devil knows what: not a bird, not a citizen—just take and chuck him out the window!”
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure,
this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish
hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably
Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left
much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang
bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars
lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano
Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera
Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night
of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and
figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera
between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value
a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
21 Jan 2016
Lianna Haroutounian resplendent in Madama Butterfly at the Concertgebouw
The title role is a deciding factor in Madama Butterfly. Despite a
last-minute conductor cancellation, last Saturday’s concert performance
at the Concertgebouw was a resounding success, thanks to Lianna
Haroutounian’s opulent, heart-stealing Cio-Cio-San.
Stepping in for Karel Mark Chichon, who cancelled due to illness, young
Italian conductor Pietro Rizzo led the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in a
exciting, if imperfect, performance. It was evident that he had had very little
time with the orchestra. The first bars sounded rather scrabbly. There were
unsteady woodwind attacks, especially in the wedding scene, and the horn
section repeatedly lagged behind in Act III. Mr Rizzo’s signalling to the
Netherlands Radio Choir, who ushered in Butterfly with some heavenly sounds,
also suffered from their belated acquaintance. The Humming Chorus, sung
backstage, was adequate musically but lacked dynamic subtlety. Flaws aside,
however, the performance had a pulsating energy and was enriched with carefully
crafted details. Mr Rizzo can suspend a phrase in mid-air and then let it glide
down as gracefully as the folds of a kimono. He also whipped up some thrilling
Puccinian crests, although climaxes were hard-edged and needed more roundness
in the brass. Altogether, Mr Rizzo’s was an exciting Concertgebouw debut.
It was also his first time conducting in the Netherlands, and hopefully he will
return soon. There were excellent contributions from some of the principals, in
particular concertmaster Joris van Rijn’s tender solos, Ellen
Versney’s softly glittering harp and Paul Jussen’s portentous
All the soloists sang the music by heart, which is always a boon, and
entered and exited in character. Most of the supporting cast ranged from
acceptable to competent. As Goro tenor Ho-yoon Chung sang very well indeed, but
nothing in his characterisation suggested the marriage-broker’s base,
money-grubbing nature. He sounded more like a friendly next-door neighbour. A
cut above the rest were bass Miklós Sebestyén as the Bonze and the
three Dutch singers playing Kate Pinkerton and Butterfly’s relatives. Mr
Sebestyén was vocally commanding in his short scene, storming in to
renounce Cio-Cio-San for converting to Christianity. Maria Fiselier, Ruth
Willemse and Julia Westendorp were all outstanding.
Tenor Arnold Rutkowski has an attractive lyric voice with an interesting,
bittersweet chocolatey timbre. His Pinkerton was young and foolish and
completely unaware of the havoc he was wreaking. He was on solid ground as long
as he sang mezzo forte or louder. Softer singing resulted in quality loss. Mr
Rutkowski is very musical, but more dynamic control would increase his
expressive possibilities. He had all the high notes, which he jettisoned with
great physical energy, but the dicey trajectory they sometimes took made one
wish for more technical grip. Baritone Angelo Veccia was a suave and humane
Sharpless. His refined phrasing amply made up for some throatiness, mostly
evident in the upper third of the voice. Mr Veccia’s restrained Sharpless
found a dramatic foil in Marie-Nicole Lemieux, who brought her potent dramatic
presence to Suzuki. The extremes of her acerbic top and plunging contralto made
Butterfly’s maid and companion both fierce-tempered and fiercely
maternal. The orchestra was often a little too loud—a common issue at the
Concertgebouw, where sound carries further than some conductors
realise—but Ms Lemieux could easily counter the volume.
So could Lianna Haroutounian, who gave a world-class performance as the
abandoned teenage bride. Her Butterfly was trusting but dignified, and devoid
of simpering silliness. With its rich, silk-wrapped vibrato, even focus from
top to bottom, and that ductile quality Italians call morbidezza
(softness), Ms Haroutounian’s voice is ideal for the young heroine. And
she is a true spinto soprano, with enough power and stamina to tackle the
onerous third act. Her full top notes are confident and lustrous. She did not
take the high D flat at the end of the entrance aria, but the
composer-sanctioned lower alternative, and quite beautifully too. “Un bel
dì vedremo” (One fine day) was vocal perfection. She effectively
built up the tension during Butterfly’s imagined reunion with Pinkerton
and ended the aria in a stunning high B flat. Visibly emotional in the suicide
scene, she veered a little sharp in “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio” (You,
you, my little god). Halfway through, she refocused her voice and sailed
through to a secure finale. Unsurprisingly, the hall gave her a clamorous
ovation. San Francisco Opera has already announced that Ms Haroutounian will be
their Butterfly next season. No doubt she will be invited to sing this role at
several other houses. As many Puccini fans as possible need to hear her in it.
In fact, opera fans of all types need to hear Ms Haroutounian, in any of her
roles—hers is one of the major voices of our time.
Cast and production information:
Cio-Cio-San — Lianna Haroutounian, Suzuki — Marie-Nicole
Lemieux, Arnold Rutkowski — Pinkerton, Sharpless — Angelo Veccia,
Goro — Ho-yoon Chung, Prince Yamadori— Yujoong Kim, The
Bonze— Miklós Sebestyén, Yakusidé — Hee-Saup Yoon,
The Imperial Commissioner — Enseok Choi, The Official Registrar —
Kyung-Il Ko, Cio-Cio-San’s Mother — Ruth Willemse, Kate
Pinkerton/Aunt — Maria Fiselier, Niece — Julia Westendorp,
Conductor — Pietro Rizzo, Netherlands Radio Choir, Netherlands Radio
Philharmonic. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam on Saturday,
16th January, 2016.